With a few exceptions, Roma fans will immediately rally around any player attacked or slighted by an outsider. It’s part and parcel of Roma’s crisis of self confidence; when you constantly seek approval or valuation by comparing yourself to others—in this case the larger clubs of Europe—only to fall short, you retreat inward and seek comfort in the arms of those you love, thereby strengthening an already resolute bond. And when someone attacks the ones you love, you react. Swiftly, irrationally and without prejudice.
In this case, Radja Nainggolan is the bloodied and battered carcass around whom we rally. Thanks in part to his continued exclusion from the Belgian National team, Roma fans have reacted with equal parts confusion and rage. Like, seriously, what the hell is Roberto Martinez thinking? How could he not take Radja!?....No, really, what the fuck is his problem?
Well, wouldn’t you know it, the object of our scorn spoke up today, providing some insight into his continued rejection of Radja. It’s...umm...not convincing.
I realise that Radja is someone who is very popular...I have to make decisions based on the balance of the team though. I think I can say that in the number 10 position, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens are the best players we have at present.
As for Radja, he’s at his best for Roma when he plays in the number 10 role, with the freedom behind [Edin] Dzeko. We don’t really have a similar position, and when we tried it, it didn’t really work.
His best influence is when he can burst into the box or when he can shoot from range. We tried him at 10 against Russia, against the Czech Republic and against Greece and it was never successful.
Well Mr. Martinez is right about one thing, Nainggolan is at his best when he’s playing as a number ten, but to limit him to that role—one which he really only tried full time last season—is to sell Nainggolan, and by extension Belgium, woefully short. Radja’s athleticism, his relentless work rate, his defensive acumen and his passing ability make him an ideal 21st century midfielder; one who can thrive in virtually any role. I get that Martinez wants to build his midfield around Hazard, it makes total sense, but to do so at the exclusion of Nainggolan in any role is incredibly short sighted.
Okay, so what about some sort of utility, jack of all trades/substitute role?
I know that Radja is a player with enormous potential, but he’s not a player you can put as the 15th or 16th man, he needs to have an important role within the team.
I don’t think that would suit his status, there are some players who would be satisfied being a squad player and waiting for their chance. Radja is one of those players who aren’t suited to a role on the bench. In every country you find players who people can’t understand why they aren’t included....Why doesn’t [Cesc] Fabregas get picked for Spain, for example? The hardest thing for a Coach is finding the best balance.
We’d obviously have to get Nainggolan’s input on his willingness to accept a bench role, but one would think a trip to the World Cup is enough in and of itself, but again, to suggest that Nainggolan would be a 15th or 16th man is patently absurd. Even not being intimately familiar with Belgium’s roster top to bottom, you mean to tell me they have better options in attack than Nainggolan? As if a player courted the world over couldn’t change the tenor of a match for 30 minutes?
Need a little spark? Nainggolan, as Martinez said, is best when he’s able to crash into the box. How about a little grinta in the second half? Name me five players on earth more tenacious than Nainggolan...I’ll wait.
Martinez wrapped things up speaking about ways in which player can catch his attention:
The first factor you need to analyse is how the player performs on the pitch, and when you see how they function on the pitch, you ask yourself how they function off it. That parameter hasn’t been considered yet...Right now I can only judge what I see on the pitch and in terms of balance, players need to catch my attention...My job is to assemble the best squad possible and for that I have to receive signals from players to influence my selection.
I honestly have no idea what he’s referring to with his off the pitch comments—maybe he’s really anti-smoking—but this whole thing smacks of someone trying to rationalize something they know to be false. What other explanation can you offer for leaving off arguably one of the world’s five best midfielders from your squad?
While I can understand the logistical headaches associated with shuffling between several quality, and in this instance world class, players, Martinez’s failure to envision a role for a player as versatile and talented as Nainggolan speaks to a complete lack of innovation.
At the end of the day, Belgium’s loss is Roma’s gain, as the less miles on his legs the better, but may god have mercy on you if you are a Roma and Belgium fan.